No streetlamps illuminated the path. No iron protected his hooves. The donkey moved along sluggishly, occasionally stumbling from his heavy burden. The road was barren and rough.
Mary, being great with child, was suffering. Joseph was exhausted, but he pushed on. His arms ached from urging the beast forward, the skin of his palms raw from pulling on the rope. Dust billowed around them, filled their nostrils, parched their throats.
"Can we not rest, husband?" asked Mary. "We must reach Bethlehem tonight," he replied. "Here, take another sip from the wineskin. It will refresh you."
"Nay, Joseph, the wine is almost gone and you need it more than I, walking these many miles." "I'm fine, Mary, drink."
Mary swallowed the tepid brew, arched her back, and braced herself to endure the rest of the journey. Surely, it could not be much farther. Hours ago, they had fallen behind the others.
As they pressed onward, the moon appeared, a perfect orb in the gathering dusk. Joseph worried that the ass would balk entirely and they would be forced to camp along the roadside, an open invitation to thieves. He was eager to reach Bethlehem. Tomorrow, the enrollment would begin, and he did not want to be last in line.
He was worried about Mary. She was at full term, and he knew she could not endure long in the clamor of merchants, travelers, children and animals. He must find a quiet place for them to rest. He would not push so hard on the way home; they could stop more often, possibly even enjoy the trip.
The moon shone more brilliantly as darkness fell. Tears trailed down Mary's cheeks as she gazed upward, relishing that dim memory of Gabriel's words to her, "Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus." She did not feel blessed at the moment, with fatigue wearing down her resolve, and every bump in the road causing her pain.
"Listen, Mary, do you hear that? We are almost there!" encouraged Joseph, picking up the pace in a new burst of energy.
As they rounded a bend in the road, Bethlehem lay just ahead. Stars twinkled in the sky as they gazed at the city. Bells jingled, asses brayed, the creak of leather and the smell of dung filled the air. Candlelight blinked from nearby windows and lanterns hung on doorposts, giving a festive appearance to the scene before them.
Excitement banished exhaustion as they hurried toward the noise and hubbub of the place where King David was born. "First, a place to sleep, then food," said Joseph. "We must find the Inn!"
Later, as the innkeeper's wife spread blankets on clean straw, Mary whispered to her, "My time has come." The woman noted the fear in Mary's eyes and patted her arm reassuringly. "Never you mind, dear, I'm experienced in these matters. I'll attend you myself."
"Sir," she addressed Joseph, "Clean out that manger over there and put in fresh hay. You're about to become a father!" His heart leapt to his throat, and he hastened to make a soft bed for the child.
Hours passed. Joseph paced outside the stable, wrapping his cloak about himself in the chill of the night. He, too, remembered the angel Gabriel's words, "You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
"Yahwey is Salvation," he mused aloud as he thought about the name Jesus. "How can the Savior of our people be born in a stable? How could you let this happen, Jehovah? Why have you allowed your Son to be born like a common beggar?" As he looked up, he caught sight of the new moon, whose light illuminated the world around him, causing dark objects to stand out in bas-relief.
He gazed at the moon and sighed, realizing that the Creator of light, the Creator of the world, was surely capable of handling his own Son's birth, and suddenly felt unworthy of questioning God's methods. The moon seemed to shine brighter as he stood there, a feeling of peace settling in to warm his heart.
The star would come later, to appear out on a hillside to the lowliest of men, and in a far-off land to men of wisdom.
© Faye Adams